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Growth Requires Unlearning as Much as Learning

The importance of letting go of habits and mindsets that no longer work.

Key points

  • Growth and aliveness require a commitment not only to just learning but also to unlearning—letting go of behaviors that no longer work.
  • Unlearning isn't like learning. It isn't merely additive.
  • We don't upgrade the way computers do. We have to continually question our beliefs and values.

We love to hail lifelong learners, those stouthearted souls who stay on their growing edges and never let go of their sense of curiosity and adventure, who stick with their passions and purposes come what may.

But growth and aliveness also require a commitment to unlearning. To occasionally letting go of behaviors, assumptions, mindsets, worldviews, and ways of thinking and acting that used to work but no longer do, no longer fit the changing circumstances of your life, or start bringing you diminishing returns, whether at the individual, organizational, or cultural level.

As futurist Alvin Toffler wrote: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

This, of course, is a sentiment that looks great on a poster in an HR office, but is devilishly hard to live by. We don't upgrade outdated software the way computers do—open settings, select new operating system, then install. We have to cultivate the willingness to second-guess ourselves and question authority, especially our own—the conclusions we've drawn, the beliefs we’ve held, the conventional wisdoms we've followed, the habits we've formed, the goals we've set, and even the values we live by.

A changing marketplace, a different world from the one you grew up in, an evolving relationship, or just the demands of emotional and intellectual honesty, all require that you make upgrades from time to time. This begins by asking yourself what's working in your life and what's not, what’s a fit and what isn’t anymore, what used to work but no longer does—which of your sandbags need to be jettisoned in order for your balloon to rise?

But dismantling habits and beliefs you may have spent your whole life honing is an acquired taste, and not for the faint of heart. In fact, what requires unlearning may not be a mere lifetime's worth of bad habits or business-as-usual, but multi-generational and historical habits, ancestral lineage, and ancient brain wiring, even the juggernaut of evolution itself.

On a trip to Greece in my 20s, I tried snorkeling for the first time, and it took a surprisingly long time, over an hour, before my mind quit slamming my throat shut the moment my face went below the waterline. In learning this new activity—in attempting to open a new world to myself—I had to overcome millions of years of the instinct to hold my breath underwater. I didn’t exactly unlearn it, but I certainly learned to override it temporarily.

More recently, my partner and I have been working to unlearn a few bad habits in the arena of conflict resolution, having discovered that lifelong patterns of defensiveness are repeatedly sabotaging us. So we're not only studying and practicing new communication and conflict resolution skills, but trying to unlearn a few, such as the kneejerk ways we react to criticism, defend ourselves when we feel misunderstood, make assumptions about the other guy’s intentions, and neglect to calm our nervous systems when they get flooded.

But unlearning isn't like learning. It isn't merely additive—adding new knowledge or habits to your existing inventory. It's subtractive. It's stopping a certain behavior, questioning a certain assumption or expectation, or decommissioning a habit. That is, not doing business as usual.

It's recognizing and accepting that a change needs to happen, that your old way of doing something isn't working anymore. It's then finding sources of new knowledge and inspiration, whether through books, videos, classes, or mentoring. Then it's erasing and redrawing, overwriting your data, and doing a cancel-clear. It’s like when your computer alerts you that “a file with the same name already exists,” and prompts you to either restore the old file or save a new one in its place.

Overwriting an old file leads to what psychologists call extinction, the gradual weakening of a conditioned response, so the behavior that grows out of it eventually stops. If a dog salivates predictably at the sound of a ringing bell (anticipating food), and you start ringing the bell but without giving him food, the dog's salivary response will eventually go extinct.

I was a young reporter when computers first came on the scene in the newsroom, and I remember my editor insisting that I stop writing my stories longhand and learn to think and write on the computer. I was no longer encouraged or rewarded for doing things the old way, so the old way vanished, and though it initially slowed me down and frustrated me, it eventually streamlined my work.

An advertising executive of my acquaintance helped me understand how this works. After his agency’s people took sales or productivity seminars, he told me, business actually fell off for a month or two before picking back up, because in learning new ideas and techniques that challenged their old habits, they ventured beyond the approaches that previously worked. But the new behaviors didn’t come naturally at first, and before they became second nature, the extra effort showed up as a dip in performance. In the long run, though, the new skills made them more productive.

Unlearning requires patience with this shift, and the willingness to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward. After all, you’re attempting to think, act, and perceive things differently, to break down often long-held beliefs, biases, and behaviors, and the core perceptions that fuel them, and it can sometimes require patience on the order of years.

This is precisely what my partner and I are discovering as we work to deconstruct our conflicts and understand their moving parts—what triggers each of us, the difference between reactions and responses, which ones work and which ones don’t, what assumptions we bring to the bargaining table, what we need from one another when we're triggered, and the brainstorming of win-win solutions.

All this is made harder if you’re attempting to unlearn something in the face of pushback by whatever larger system you’re operating in—whether your family, community, corporation, industry, or the culture at large—especially when it discourages new ways of thinking and behaving. And the larger and more complex the system, the more resistant to change it will generally be, the more mired in the force of habit. If it’s challenging for an individual to unlearn something, it’s exponentially more so for a community of individuals.

As for how you gain the motivation to unlearn something, this may be a function of pain finally outweighing gain, of an old pattern becoming a noticeably losing proposition, if not actively holding you back from who you want to be and how you want to live. But it requires admitting this to yourself, which typically happens long after the evidence has begun piling up.

However, if the reward for unlearning something is significant enough—if the food pellet you get for the new behavior is bigger than the one you get for the old behavior—you're more likely to let the old behavior go. Let’s say you’re called to unlearn old defensive patterns, which have “rewarded” you with a temporary sense of power and self-protection, control over your alarmingly porous borders, or the momentary charge you get from being “right” or "winning" an argument. But if a new, non-defensive response gives you a greater sense of closeness and compatibility with someone—a more long-lasting kind of safety and security—or you ultimately feel better about yourself, or you get to avoid the anger and stress of continued conflict and dysfunction, it might tip the scales in favor of the new approach.

The fact is, extinction is part of evolution, and nature itself operates by focusing on what works, not what doesn’t; on successes, not failures; on adaptation. Granted, evolution's timeline is a lot longer than what we as individuals have to work with, and our own learning, unlearning, and relearning generally requires a push, even if it’s propelled by desperation.

When author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that mastery in any field of endeavor requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, he was very clear that this meant practicing good habits, not bad ones, otherwise you’re just cementing dysfunction. And this goes for mastering the art of unlearning as well. By focusing on what works and leaving to the fossil records what doesn't work, you support your own evolution.

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